Writing a strong female character

Hi there,

I am new to writing, and I am finding it very difficult writing female characters.

I have two female characters, one is a more feminine "girly girl" the other is more of a "tomboy".

The problem is that they are in a group that do adventurous stuff and every part of the team needs skills, and these skills are not typically feminine. Hotwiring cars, improvised explosives, gun skills etc.

The characters are also physically fit, as they need to be to do the things they do, so they naturally have attractive proportions.

As soon as I write a female character who is attractive and has skills that are considered masculine, my test readers think I am just creating some kind of fantasy girl-of-my-dreams thing. If I make the female characters overweight, with short hair etc, suddenly for whatever reason my test readers can accept them as believable characters.

This is frustrating because I know personally women who are perfectly capable of typically male skills, from mountain biking and extreme sports to car mechanics and engineering. These women are believable in my eyes, but for some reason I cannot write them without sounding like I am forcing a character to be what I want instead of being realistic. As an experiment I even wrote a character based on one of my friends and after she read it back (not knowing it was her) she found it unrealistic.

how can I write a character that does typically male things whilst retains her femininity and is still believable?

Answer: A few thoughts...

Remember to give your characters flaws and insecurities as well as strengths. As Margaret Atwood recently pointed out, to create a flawless character is to create an insufferable one. No one is more hated than the person who seems to have everything going for them. And people who seem to have everything going for them are usually just good at hiding their insecurities (sometimes even from themselves). Your friend may have found your portrayal of her unrealistic because inside she feels not nearly as capable and perfect as you describe her. (Women often see flaws in themselves that their male friends are oblivious to.)

Letting the reader see the character's imperfections and insecurities makes the character appear more realistic and helps the reader feel empathy for the character.

Consider too that strength comes in many forms, including strength of character. For instance, who is stronger: an athletic policewoman who must apprehend a killer or a battered wife who finally stands up to her husband?

For some characters, parachuting out of a plane takes an immense amount of courage. For others, it is more frightening to deliver a speech in front of a group of people. Some people would rather fight in a mixed martial arts competition than confront their ex-wife or face a high school reunion. So you may give different characters different strengths and comfort zones.

Bear in mind that not all people who do dangerous or "masculine" work look like typical Hollywood action stars. Not all police officers and engineers are body builders. You don't have to look like a supermodel to have a love life.

If you describe your female characters as physically perfect they will start to sound idealized. So give them physical imperfections as well. For instance, your extreme sports girl might be in great shape but still not have the right proportions to be a super model. Maybe she has scars from old sports injuries, big feet, bushy eyebrows, too many freckles. Maybe she feels too short or too tall. Maybe, despite all the exercise, she still feels ten pounds overweight.

Best of luck.

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